This Week’s Favorite: The Scarlet Letter

the scarlet letterFour years ago, when debuted, I was coming out of a fog of re-reading a dozen or so classics to launch our library of classics videos. Among them was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Like the other titles I recapped for our library, I felt I had a nuanced understanding of the novel. But I was surprised that—after the intensive collegiate study that granted me a degree in English, and even after many years of critical reading as a book reviewer—I still didn’t feel much connection to what’s thought of as a masterpiece of American Literature.

I was 16 the first time I encountered Hester Prynne and her flaming symbol of sin, and I had two responses to the book. First, I thought that the language took way too much decoding (i.e. that reading the book was a slog). Second, I thought Hawthorne’s constant hammering of the symbol of the A bordered on hilarious.

It wasn’t that I missed the point of the story. I studiously deconstructed it in class, then convinced a group of friends to go trick-or-treating with me…as Hester Prynnes. This, mind you, was after my birthday party, at which I forced everyone to play a rousing game of pin-the-scarlet-letter-A-on-Hester. I was an unqualified nerd even then—but at least I had a sense of humor. (And yes, I’m still friends with some of my fellow Hesters—in case you were wondering.)

I’ve never lost my one-eyebrow-raised response to Hawthorne’s work—especially to his perhaps over-the-top use of the A. (Though, as you’ll see here, I maintain an appreciation for the meaning with which Hawthorne managed to imbue the letter.) But this week, I found a different feeling overcoming me as I read the book for the fourth time: awe.

I was moved by The Scarlet Letter. For the first time, I felt very deeply for Hester. I felt an emotional connection to the situation—especially to the way the two main creeps, er, male characters, feed off her transgression for their own self-centered purposes.

It’s funny: In the past, The Scarlet Letter has always seemed to me to be primarily a book about sin, hypocrisy, and guilt. It’s still about those things. But it’s also about a person–a character who finally sprang off the page for me, not as some silly 19th-century construct, but as a human being. And thanks to Hester, I began to understand Hawthorne’s mastery: seldom has a character seemed so real, her plight so poignant, her journey so gripping.

I know what changed. It’s the first time I’ve read The Scarlet Letter as a writer instead of as a reader. I suddenly get what Hawthorne’s doing—the choices he’s making, the structure he’s building, the characters he’s unpeeling. I’m not saying you have to be a writer to appreciate the book; I’m just saying that I’m glad I finally do.

I highly recommend you give this masterpiece—and my new favorite—a chance, too.

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